A former top executive with the company that owned the Upper Big Branch mine in which 29 West Virginia miners perished in a 2010 underground explosion was charged today with conspiring to impede federal mine inspectors and to violate mine safety laws.
David Hughart, 53, of Crab Orchard, W.Va., the former president of Massey Energy Co.'s Green Valley Resource Group, was charged in federal district court in Beckley, W.Va., becoming the highest-ranking official charged to date in an ongoing federal investigation of Massey.
Federal officials said he has agreed to plead guilty and is cooperating with the investigation.
Mr. Hughart's cooperation would seem to indicate authorities are targeting those even higher on the Massey executive chain, including former CEO Don Blankenship, in the alleged conspiracy that prosecutors said led to the nation's worst mine disaster in four decades. The Upper Big Branch miners died in an explosion that was sparked by worn teeth on a cutting machine, and fueled by methane and coal dust.
Alpha Natural Resources Inc., which acquired Massey's operations in a June 2011 merger, is cooperating with the investigation, federal prosecutors said.
"Mine safety and health laws were routinely violated [at coal mines]owned by Massey in part because of a belief that consistently following [mine safety] laws would decrease coal production," according to the information filed against Mr. Hughart.
Authorities accuse Mr. Hughart of working with "known and unknown" co-conspirators to ensure that miners underground at Massey-owned operations received advance warning
about surprise federal inspections "on many occasions and various
dates" between 2000 and March 2010.
Mr. Hughart and others provided the advance warnings to provide workers with the time to conceal violations that could have led to citations, fines and costly production shutdowns,
the document says.
Four investigations have concluded that Massey systematically covered
up problems through an elaborate scheme that included
sanitized safety-inspection books and an advance-warning system.
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968.